California Dreaming: Hey Little Cobra

The success of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean had not gone unnoticed, and every musician with an eye for what was hot was soon cutting their own surf and hot rod tunes. Among the earliest were the Rip Chords…sort of.

The Rip Chords were a vocal duo, Ernie Bridges and Phil Stewart, who had been signed to Columbia records and released a couple of unsuccessful singles, Here I Stand and Gone. Here I Stand had been arranged by Jack Nitzsche and had been a very minor hit, reaching number 51, giving the band just enough clout with the record label for them to keep releasing singles, and Terry Melcher, the band’s producer, was eager for that to continue. Melcher, who had previously had an unsuccessful career as a singer under the name Terry Day (recording a flop single, Be A Soldier, with production by Phil Spector and arrangement by Nitzsche) had his job as a staff producer largely because of the influence of his mother, Doris Day, and was mostly working with soft pop acts like Frankie Laine. The Rip Chords gave him the chance to do the rock and roll he wanted.

But there was a problem — Ernie Bridges, who had sung lead on Here I Stand, was off to theological seminary, and wasn’t allowed to continue in the band any longer.

This problem was solved quickly. Stewart would continue to lead the Rip Chords, with two new musicians, Arnie Marcus and Rich Rotkin. Marcus and Rotkin wouldn’t play on the records, where the vocals would be shared between Stewart, Bridges (when he could take time off his training for the priesthood), Melcher, and Melcher’s friend Bruce Johnston, who, like Melcher, was a rich kid who’d decided to make rock and roll his hobby, and who had sung backing vocals on Gone. Stewart, Bridges, Marcus and Rotkin would all be credited on the records, and Johnston and Melcher would be ghost vocalists.

This arrangement suited everyone, and meant that on occasion Bruce and Terry could just knock together a track without any of the Rip Chords being involved — as they did with the band’s third single, Hey Little Cobra.

The song was brought to Bruce and Terry by Carol Connors, a singer who had started in Phil Spector’s group The Teddy Bears before moving on to work as both a singer and a songwriter with Gary Usher and Roger Christian, who when they weren’t writing lyrics for Brian Wilson songs would work together and separately on churning out tons of surf and car product and songs for beach movies.

Connors’ song is clearly based on the Brian Wilson formula. Lyrically, the connection is obvious — the Cobra is “little”, just like the Deuce Coupe, while the phrase “shut ’em down” turns up twenty-one times in less than two minutes, far more than it does in, say, the Beach Boys’ Shut Down.

But it’s the music that’s the real giveaway. This is structured exactly like one specific song — Surf City. Both songs start with an ascending tagline, going into a verse with a simple, generic chord sequence that feints at a key change as it rises into the chorus, before a twelve-bar chorus that follows a standard blues pattern for the first eight bars, before repeating the tagline, which starts on the major chord a flattened third above the tonic and rises.

There are, of course, differences — the movement up after the IIIb chord is different in both songs, for example — but the songs are so similar that there’s no question that it was Surf City, in particular, that Connors was consciously attempting to emulate (understandably enough, as this was the only song from the Wilson/Berry/Christian/Usher grouping to have reached number one at that point).

The main difference comes in the chorus vocal arrangement. Where the Beach Boys’ lead singer, Mike Love, was a bass, and so Brian Wilson’s songs tended to have a prominent, complex, moving solo bass vocal part in the chorus while the band chanted one- or two-word phrases, both Melcher and Johnston were very light tenors, and so the part which in a Brian Wilson song would have been the solo bass vocal (“Sting little Cobra gettin’ ready to fight”) here becomes the part taken by the massed vocals, while Johnston’s solo line (“Shut ’em down”) is the part that Wilson would have made a three-part harmony chant.

The track is by far the most successful attempt at emulating the Brian Wilson style to that point, both commercially ( reaching number four in the US charts) and artistically, but it’s still clearly a lesser work. Even though Melcher and Johnston were using the same musicians who’d played on Surf City, and though the Beach Boys themselves, not the strongest of instrumentalists, were playing on their own records, yet the sound on Hey Little Cobra is notably thinner than anything from the Wilson stable. In part, this is because with only two vocalists and the primitive recording techniques of the time, the track required a lot of bouncing down (recording parts on two or more tracks of a multitrack tape, then rerecording those tracks onto a single track, freeing up space on the tape, but losing a generation of sound quality in the process), but it’s notable that most of Melcher’s other productions have this light, tinny sound.

The Rip Chords as a group would have only one further hit after Hey Little Cobra, but this single’s success had proved that if you wanted to get a Beach Boys sound, it was worth getting Bruce Johnston involved. This was not lost on the Beach Boys themselves…

Hey Little Cobra

Composers: Carol Connors and M. H. Connors

Line-up: Terry Melcher (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Glen Campbell (guitar), Steve Douglas (saxophone), Leon Russell (keyboards), Hal Blaine (drums), Frank Capp (percussion), Al de Lory (keyboards), Bill Pitman (guitar), Ray Pohlman (bass), and Tommy Tedesco (guitar).

Original release: Hey Little Cobra/The Queen , the Rip Chords, Columbia single 4-42921

Currently available on: Hey Little Cobra and Other Hot Rod Hits / Three Window Coupe Cherry Red CD

Mike Love’s Beach Boys, 7th July 2013

Nobody in the music business polarises opinion like Mike Love. To some he’s the essential element in the Beach Boys’ success — the nasal-voiced singer of their biggest hits, “Mr Positivity”, the hardest working man in showbiz. To others, he’s the evil monster who killed Smile, the reason for the Beach Boys’ descent into artistic irrelevance, and a talentless hack who had the good luck to be born into the same family as a musical genius and has exploited him for fifty years.

For myself, I fall into the middle ground. I have very little respect for Love as an artist — he’s been involved in the creation of many great songs and records, but in the vast majority of the cases the songs he’s co-written were great despite, rather than because of, his contributions. But the hatred toward him from certain quarters is so intense, and so personal, that I often find myself defending him from those who think he’s Hitler and Jack The Ripper combined.

After the Beach Boys’ reunion tour ended last year in circumstances which are still only slowly becoming clear, Love returned to touring with his backing band, which licenses the Beach Boys’ name but which only features one other member of the Beach Boys proper, Bruce Johnston.

This has been widely condemned, and I can see why — last year’s shows were some of the best I’ve ever seen. But what isn’t fair is that much of this condemnation has involved attacks on his band members, who are all excellent musicians in their own right. Two of them, lead guitarist Scott Totten and drummer John Cowsill, were in the reunion tour band, and added a huge amount to that tour — the main reason I’m upset that the tour ended, in fact, is not because I’ll never see Brian Wilson and Mike Love onstage together again, but because I’ll never see Scott Totten and John Cowsill playing with Probyn Gregory, Nelson Bragg, Darian Sahanaja and the rest of Wilson’s great band.

The problem is that when Love started touring as “the Beach Boys” in 1998 after Carl Wilson’s death, the band he was playing with was extraordinarily poor, and even though he’s changed the personnel almost completely since that time — only keyboardist Tim Bonhomme remains of that band other than Love and Johnston — that set people’s perceptions of the band. But — thanks largely to musical director Scott Totten — Love’s band have now reached the point that while they might not be as good as Wilson’s band (mostly because Love’s smaller band is confined to a guitar/bass/keyboard/drums lineup rather than having vibraphones, hand percussion, tannerins and horns to play with) they’re an astounding live act in their own right. They no longer cut the corners that the Beach Boys did when Carl Wilson was still alive — they play the staccato section of God Only Knows properly, rather than eliding it, and they do the a capella break on Sloop John B. They’re *GOOD*.

(Love’s band are the only one I’ve ever seen where I’ve heard non-musician audience members mention the drummer — in the case of Mike Kowalski, the drummer when Love started licensing the band name, people said “Is he drunk? That’s the worst drumming I’ve ever heard!”, while in the case of Cowsill people coming out of the shows say “wasn’t that drummer incredible?!”)

Sunday’s show in London proved that this band are worth seeing. Their set was part of a festival, with a line-up that wasn’t so much eclectic as just stupid. The bill included The Gruffalo, Horrible Histories, Paul Young and The Saturdays, and JLS were headliners. Other days of the Hyde Park festival have coherent bills — next week sees Elton John, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello playing on the same day, for example, which makes sense, but this was just ludicrous, and meant that the touring Beach Boys were definitely not playing to their own audience, but to a bunch of ten-year-old kids and their parents.

They also had to fit a festival time-slot, and were only given an hour — which is still more than any of the other acts, even the headliners, had. Love’s band have essentially three sets they perform, depending on venue. They’ll do three hours or so in a theatre, with fifty-plus song sets including all sorts of obscure album tracks, thirty-five or so songs at an outdoor show where they’re the primary attraction, and a twenty-song shortened set when they’re playing festivals, sporting events, and other venues where they’re not the main attraction. It was obvious going in that it was the latter we were going to get.

This is a shame, as my love for the Beach Boys has little to do with the big hits — I never need to hear Barbara Ann ever again — but at the same time, those songs were hits for a reason, and a show that consists of only them is an exhilarating event.

While waiting for them to come on, and getting into a good position in the crowd, I watched half of Paul Young’s set (pretty poor — his voice has gone). Young got in trouble for extending his set by thirty seconds, to tell the audience that Andy Murray had won the tennis. The Saturdays followed, and were greeted rapturously by the pre-teen kids in the audience, who knew every word of their songs. They still had to drop a song to fit their twelve-song set into the timeslot.

After the Saturdays, it was interesting to listen to the conversation in the audience, which was completely negative about the Beach Boys. “Why are they even here?” “I can’t believe they’re doing an hour when JLS only get forty-five minutes!” “This is going to be awful,” and much more. The audience just wanted JLS — though it was the adults that were moaning. The little kids in the audience were politely applauding anything that came onto the stage, because they were out for a special treat and were on their best behaviour.

But then the band came out. Cowsill, Bonhomme, and bass player Randell Kirsch (who sings most of the falsetto parts for the band — he has a voice very like that of his friend and collaborator Jeff Foskett, who sings the same parts for Brian Wilson’s band) started up the intro to Do It Again, and then Totten, rhythm guitarist Christian Love (Mike Love’s son, who has a singing voice much like that of Carl Wilson, though he doesn’t have the artistry to use it to the same effect), Johnston and Love came out, and ran through three surfing hits back-to-back, going straight into Catch A Wave and Surfin’ Safari.

Surfer Girl followed, with Johnston taking lead on the middle eight, and Love dancing with his daughter Ambha. Straight after came Don’t Worry Baby, with Kirsch on lead — that one sounded just gorgeous.

Normally after Don’t Worry Baby, Love’s band would do a medley of four car songs, all played in full, but in this abbreviated set, the “hotwire the hot rods!” section consisted of just Little Deuce Coupe and I Get Around — the latter was the first one to really win the audience around, with a huge proportion of the audience singing along. While they’d been polite from the first, this got the audience fully on-side, and from here on they were happy with everything.

Isn’t It Time was next, the first real surprise of the show. They played it in more-or-less the single arrangement, with Scott singing Al Jardine and Brian Wilson’s parts, while Love and Johnston sang their own. Unfortunately, they’ve replaced the ukulele part with an acoustic guitar (a shame as Totten played the ukulele on this song on last year’s tour, so clearly knows it), but it was still fun to hear, and a nice track for the fans in the audience.

Love’s shows usually follow a more-or-less chronological progression from 1962 to 1967, with only the occasional diversion, and so now we were up to 1965 and California Girls, with Johnston doing his usual cheesy “Wish they all could be UNITED KINGDOM girls!” bit. Then I Kissed Her followed, with Christian Love sounding as bored as he always does on this one. One imagines him saying backstage “Aw, daaaaad, do I *have* to?”

And then we were into the Pet Sounds section of the show. Sloop John B started this section off, with the lead split between Totten and Love, with Johnston harmonising with Totten on the first chorus. Cowsill had been having some problems early in the set with the kit — bits of it kept slipping, though that was fixed after the first few songs — but I thought the problem had recurred here at first. After listening more though, I realised that Love’s tambourine was far too high in the mix, and he was playing terribly. That marred this and the next two songs slightly, but was the only real musical problem of the performance. Wouldn’t It Be Nice followed, with Cowsill and Kirsch singing Brian Wilson’s part in unison. Wouldn’t It Be Nice is always the most successful song in any Beach Boys-related show in the UK — EVERYONE loves that one.

During the show the band had been using the videos originally created for last year’s reunion tour, and on the Pet Sounds songs this got very odd — lots of footage of band members who weren’t on stage, and especially of Brian Wilson, in 1966, clearly the leader and in charge…

God Only Knows followed, again with the video footage (but not the audio) used during the 2012 tour. Bruce Johnston sang this, and Christian Love did a lovely job on the counterpoint at the end. The video ended with “We love you, Carl”.

Good Vibrations was next, with Christian Love singing lead (with Totten covering the very highest notes). He did probably the best job of this I’ve heard from him, and it again went down very well, though it still seemed odd to see 1966 Brian on the video screens, directing the band…

Kokomo followed, sung by both Loves, and completely killed the momentum stone dead. I know this was a big hit in the US, but no-one except the obsessive fans knows it over here, and none of them like it very much. It works OK in a long set where it can be played as part of a run of more obscure songs, but it has no place in a hits show in the UK.

Luckily, Help Me Rhonda won the audience back round, with a wonderful lead vocal from Cowsill.

Halfway through Rhonda, someone came on stage and told Totten “One more song”. After some consultation between Totten and Love, they decided to do *two* more, Barbara Ann and their traditional closer Fun Fun Fun (with Johnston singing the falsetto tag).

And so they left the stage having overrun their allotted time, on a bill that had been timed to the second…

And the crowd — the crowd that had not wanted to see them at the beginning — roared “MORE! MORE!”

The Saturdays, who a huge chunk of that crowd had been squealing about from the beginning, hadn’t got called back for an encore. But Mike Love’s Beach Boys, astonishingly, were.

I have never in my life seen an audience so thoroughly won over, from mild apathy to roaring approval. Argue all you want about how Brian Wilson’s band is better (it is) or how with only two members the current band aren’t the real Beach Boys (they’re not), or how that setlist is too oriented towards the hits at the expense of the more interesting artistic music (it is). What this band can do is almost bludgeon an audience into submission with one great hit after another, performed impeccably. It’s an absolutely astonishing experience.

And then I was dumbfounded when they started the encore with, of all songs, Goin’ To The Beach — an unreleased, unfinished song from 1979, an outtake from Keepin’ The Summer Alive. Apparently it’s been finished recently, and it’s appearing on the box set next month, but this is a song that only the most utterly hardcore fans have even *heard of*, and which no-one had heard in a completed form before then.

It’s not actually very good, mind — a basic shuffle, with the lyrics “Goin’ to the beach/Goin’ to the beach with my baby” — but it fit the set well and it was ridiculously exciting to be at the live premiere of a lost song, even if it was lost for a reason; and it’s a mark of how well the band had gone down that they were able to take a risk like that and bring the audience with them.

They finished with Surfin’ USA, and I left before JLS came on, as did a thousand or so of the other older people in the audience. As I looked at them — many of them wearing Brian Wilson Pet Sounds tour T-shirts, and clearly, like me, fans of the band’s artistic side rather than the hits — they all looked like I did, with a fixed, stupid grin on their faces, exhausted and in shock.

There is no question in my mind that I would rather see Brian Wilson’s band than this band, and no question that I would rather see the full line-up from last year. But given that those aren’t options right now (Wilson’s only announced four dates this year, all in the US), the question isn’t “is this the best possible Beach Boys show?” — of course it isn’t. But if one asks “was this worth buying a ticket and travelling down to London?” the answer is absolutely YES.

The Beach Boys On CD: Bruce Johnston — Going Public

I’m actually going slightly out of order here. There were two Beach Boys solo albums released in 1977. The first of these, Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, is generally considered a masterpiece. It’s been issued on CD as a double “special edition”, including tons of bonus tracks and an entire second, previously-unreleased, album, Bambu, that was recorded as a follow-up. It’s going to take a huge amount of effort to deal with it in any kind of fair way, effort I can’t put in right now, as it’s an enormous artistic achievement.

Going Public, on the other hand, and with all possible respect to Bruce Johnston, simply isn’t.

Johnston will be re-entering the story proper in 1979, though since leaving the band in 1972 he’d remained on friendly terms with them and added backing vocals to several tracks. But he’d not been sitting around waiting for the call from his old band-mates. Johnston was always the best musician in the band, in the purely technical sense — he’s an excellent pianist, and able to turn his hand to any kind of music. So between 1972 and 1977 he’d done all sorts of work, from working with Curt Boettcher (by now shortening his name to Becher), Gary Usher and Terry Melcher on their odd disco-calypso-surf-pop California Music project, to singing backing vocals with Carl Wilson on Elton John’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, to co-writing a top 30 hit for the Hudson Brothers, to writing a song for The Captain And Tennile.

That song, I Write The Songs, was re-recorded by David Cassidy on an album Johnston produced for him in 1975, and then covered again by Barry Manilow, in a version which became a massive worldwide hit, and won Johnston the Grammy award for Song Of The Year (still the only time a Beach Boys member has won this award).

As a result of this success, Johnston recorded this solo album, produced by Gary Usher (supposedly, though I’ve seen claims that Usher had little involvement) and with Curt Becher co-arranging. The intention was apparently more to showcase other songs of Johnston’s that might have hit potential, rather than to be a satisfying album in itself, and the result is, frankly, awful — a mixture of stripped-down demos that sound like every bad lounge singer in existence, and some of the least danceable disco in existence. Johnston himself, never one to hide his opinion, has repeatedly disowned the album, saying he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to listen to it.

I have to make a confession here — this is one of only two albums I’m writing about which I don’t feel fully familiar with. Both this, and Mike Love’s solo album Looking Back With Love, are so poor that I’ve listened to them precisely twice each before the start of this project — once to see if they were as bad as people say, and once to check that they were really that bad. Those two albums are being included for completeness’ sake, not because I can offer any great insights.

Unless noted, all songs are written by Bruce Johnston, who’s also the lead vocalist.

I Write The Songs

You almost certainly know this song in Barry Manilow’s hit version, but in case you have managed to avoid it, this is a song about music, part of a regrettable 70s subgenre that also included Music by John Miles. In this case Johnston sings that “I write the songs that make the whole world sing/I write the songs of joy and special things”. When Manilow sang this, people thought, naturally enough, that it was a rather egotistical song, with Manilow claiming “I am music and I write the songs”.

Johnston has since clarified that the song is meant to be from the voice of God, from whom all music comes in his opinion. And writing a song that claims to speak for God is apparently less egotistical than merely claiming to have written all music in human history. O hubris, thy name is Johnston.

In truth, the song is nowhere near as bad as its whipping-boy status would suggest, having a decent, if saccharine, melody, and some relatively interesting chord changes, at least until the horrible truck-driver’s key changes start to come in after the middle eight. That’s not to say it’s good, mind, just that it’s not as bad as its reputation. Johnston performs it in a fairly restrained way, with the recording being just him and a piano (plus a ton of reverb) for the most part, although the addition of a choir for the last few notes is a bit much, and of course his voice is as good as ever.

This song was part of the Beach Boys’ live repertoire for a couple of years after Johnston rejoined the band, but has now become part of a ‘comedy’ bit of the show, where Johnston plays a couple of bars and is then made to apologise for having written it.

And while it shouldn’t need saying, for completeness’ sake I’ll say it. This song isn’t about Brian Wilson.

Bruce Johnston and Brian Wilson

The first truly inexplicable move on the album is this rerecording of the Sunflower song, with slightly-rewritten lyrics. The original had been, if not great, then perfectly inoffensive and with a mild light charm. Here the light swing of the original is replaced with an utterly generic disco-lite sub-Bee Gees backing — thudding four-on-the-floor drums with quavers on the hi-hat, backing vocals appearing and disappearing at random places in the stereo spectrum, an unimaginative horn arrangement and so forth.

The lyrical rewrite is clumsy, the disco arrangement galumphs clumsily when it should be encouraging us to dance, and then just in case anyone was starting to get some accidental pleasure from the song, it breaks down into a slow tempo for a few bars for a lounge sax solo. Utterly joyless.

Thank You Baby

This is a remake of a song Johnston originally recorded in the 1960s, with Terry Melcher, as their duo Bruce & Terry. In that form it was a fairly passable piece of Jan And Dean-esque harmony pop, sounding vaguely influenced by late period Buddy Holly, but with some baroque pop harpsichord. (Bruce and Terry also recorded covers of two Holly songs around the same time).

Here it’s slowed down and performed by Johnston over solo electric piano, and while it’s a pretty melody, the song itself doesn’t stand up to this treatment, with all its jolly internal rhyming — “And the way/every day/when you’d say/I love to see you smile” or “thoughts/can’t be bought/but they ought/to be shared with someone close”. That sort of thing works fine in an uptempo pop song, but just sounds ridiculous in a sensitive singer-songwriter ballad.

The middle section, where Johnston does multi-tracked “Mister Sandman” barbershop vocals works quite well though.

(For those who might think that because I dislike this album I’m dismissing Johnston as a writer or performer, incidentally, I cannot recommend the Sundazed Best Of Bruce & Terry highly enough. Twenty tracks of perfect pop, including the utterly magnificent Girl It’s Alright Now, and the Love/Johnston collaboration Don’t Run Away. One poor album shouldn’t distract from the man’s talent.)

Bruce Johnston, Bill Hudson, Brett Hudson, Mark Hudson

This track was written with and for the Hudson brothers, a pop band who were the stars of the children’s TV show The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show. Their version, done in a vaguely imitation-Chinnichap style, made number 26 as a single in 1975, becoming their second-biggest hit.

Johnston’s version sounds closer to Neil Sedaka, with its ridiculous but catchy “Rendezvous/Rendezvous/Ronday-ronday-ronday rendezvous” chorus. It’s silly pop fluff, but enjoyable for what it is.

(It’s still impossible, though, to get over Johnston singing the first line “Your mom and dad/Think I’m bad”. No, they think you’re a multi-millionaire who puts a photo of himself in full morning suit and top hat sat on the bumper of a Rolls-Royce on his album cover.)

Won’t Somebody Dance With Me?
Lynsey De Paul

One of two cover versions on the album, this is a remake of a sickeningly sweet Lynsey De Paul hit, that actually manages to be even more saccharine than the original. While De Paul’s original was all sung from the perspective of the “wallflower” who wants someone to dance with her, here Johnston switches the lyrics round to be from the point of view of her father, watching her, before saying “and she says”, at which point a female vocalist (I don’t know who, as it’s not noted as a duet in the album’s liner notes, but the credited female backing vocalists are Cindy Bullens and Diana Lee, and Toni Tennille is given ‘special thanks’ in the credits for the album) sings the “won’t somebody dance with me?” chorus, in a ludicrously high voice which can’t quite reach the notes.

The low point — not just of the album, but perhaps of all musical history up to this point — comes in the second chorus, when after each line Johnston gives a spoken response. “Won’t somebody dance with me? (Be patient, sweetheart)/Start up a romance with me/(There’ll be time for that)”

If anyone ever tries to tell you punk was unnecessary, play them this track.

Disney Girls
There’s little to say about this that I didn’t say in the write-up in the Surf’s Up album. It’s an inferior performance to that one, and just on the other side of the line that separates pop perfection from schmaltz, and this performance — solo vocal and piano apart from the “church, bingo chances” line (and an electric piano coming in on the coda), and taken a little slower than the original — shows how much the other Beach Boys added to that track. It’s utterly unnecessary if you’ve heard the original, but it’s still the best thing on the album by a long, long way.

Rock And Roll Survivor
A pleasant enough country-pop song, of a kind that Glenn Campbell might have recorded, about how the singer is through with his rock and roll days and all grown up, and is going to sing music that’s more appropriate for someone who’s in his mid-thirties and extremely rich, like country music.

The bragging about his wealth in the first verse is a little off-putting, but in a way this seems like the most emotionally honest song on the entire album, and it’s admirable in a way — he’s bored of rock and roll music, he wants to grow and play something “pleasing to my ear”. Given the way rock music has self-mythologised almost from its inception, and it’s quite nice to hear someone say “no, actually, there’s more to life, and to music, than this.”

After the nadir of Won’t Somebody Dance With Me we’re actually into a little stretch where the album is managing to achieve mediocrity, which is definitely an improvement.

Don’t Be Scared
This is actually the second song Johnston wrote titled Don’t Be Scared. The earlier one, by Bruce & Terry but released under the name The Rip Chords, is a wonderful piece of hot-rod pop with Chuck Berry guitar licks and pretty much every Beach Boys or Jan & Dean hook ever, all stuffed into two minutes and forty seconds along with a strange Joe Meek style guitar line.

This isn’t. This is Bruce, with two electric pianos and a string section, singing about how he’s a nice guy and while you only think of him as a friend he’s much better than that boyfriend you have now who’s upset you, and you shouldn’t be scared.

And the thing is…it’s not that terrible, and that’s what makes it that terrible. This is perfectly competently done, by someone who understands music very, very well. But we’re onto the penultimate track now, and the closest we’ve got to a human emotion is ‘sensitivity’. I’m not one who thinks that music should ‘rock’ necessarily — I’ve often advocated, only half-jokingly, that the electric guitar and drum kit should be banned for a decade to force people to either do something new and different or not make music at all — but…

But great music, good music, anything that deserves the name “music” at all, of any type, has a life and an energy to it, has some guts. Whether it’s Bach or Benny Goodman or Hank Williams or Ray Charles or Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee or Stravinsky or Charles Ives or Kate Bush or Elvis Presley or Captain Beefheart. Even music that a lot of people would dismiss as muzak, like the Swingle singers. Hell, even the old Rediffusion station ID… you listen to those, and you get some sense of life, of humanity, of someone attempting to communicate something, to bridge a gap between the artist and another human being.

Even advertising jingles. “A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat” was, after all, trying to communicate something to other people, so there’s some life to it.

This, though…this is absolutely competent, put together according to every rule you could come up with on how to write a mid-70s sensitive ballad, but… nothing. There’s nothing there. It’s an empty shell, as the entire album is.

I can define a category wide enough to include the Cadbury’s Fudge jingle, Edgard Varese, James Last, Tuvan throat singers, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Public Enemy, The Beatles and Tiny Tim, and find elements all those things have in common to justify their inclusion. But I can’t with any honesty put this track, or this album, into that group.

This isn’t music.

Brian Carman, Bob Spickard

This is a disco remake of the old surf instrumental, originally by the Chantays, with the melody being alternately played by strings, horns, and sung by Johnston and Becher in wordless vocals.

It’s not so terrible, I suppose, once you get over the cognitive dissonance, but by this point I’ve lost the will to live.

This was released as a single and somehow managed to make the top forty in the UK. I hear people did a lot of cocaine in the 1970s.

Please don’t make me listen to this album again, I’ll be good, I promise.

The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys Love You

The follow-up to 15 Big Ones may well be the most controversial album the band ever did, with fans almost evenly divided between those who love it and those who hate it. In a recent (totally unscientific) poll on one fan forum, Love You made the top ten both of fans’ favourite and least favourite albums.

And there’s a good reason for this. Love You is, quite simply, unlike anything else ever recorded, not just by the Beach Boys but by anyone. It’s almost impossible to get across to people who haven’t heard it just how unlike anything else any major band has ever done this is. Possibly the best way to explain the album’s sound is by a hypothetical:

Imagine playing J.S. Bach a Phil Spector album, then telling him “you have an hour to write as many songs that sound like that as possible”, and locking him in a room with Jonathan Richman as a lyricist. Then take those songs and give them to Tom Waits to record, but with the only instruments allowed being a Moog with its settings stuck on “fart sound” and a single snare drum.

While the result wouldn’t exactly be The Beach Boys Love You, it would probably be close enough on a first approximation. It’s an album where the vast majority of the instrumentation is played by Brian, and is as rudimentary as that implies. Given its release in 1977, it would actually be the only sensible response by a major band to punk, were there any evidence that Brian Wilson had ever heard a punk record at this point — as it is, we have to see it as just convergent evolution. This seems to be the cause of the great split in Beach Boys fandom over this album. Very roughly, anyone who became a Beach Boys fan before punk despises this album, anyone who grew up listening to punk and post-punk music seems to get it instinctively.

This is one of only two Beach Boys albums to be made up entirely of previously-unreleased Brian Wilson songs (the other being Smiley Smile) and is as personal a statement as Pet Sounds, Smile or Smiley Smile. And I am absolutely in the camp for whom this is one of the pillars on which the Beach Boys’ artistic reputation rests. Certainly this is the last album by the group that anyone could possibly argue was great — and there are only two after this that one could reasonably argue are even listenable (though the band’s members would make plenty of good music solo).

It’s not an easy listen, though. It’s bare, minimalist, raspy and human. Apparently Carl Wilson did a lot to sweeten the album before its release (he’s credited as ‘mixdown producer’, with Brian Wilson credited as ‘producer’, but supposedly he did a lot more than that implies), which just makes one wonder what on Earth this could have sounded like before the sweetening.

One thing that must be addressed before we get to the album proper, though, is the claim by some that the people who like this album do so because they’re fetishising mental illness, and that the album itself is ‘a product of mental illness’. This is nonsense.

The album isn’t “a product of mental illness” — it’s a product of an artist who happened to be living with a mental illness. Yes, it wouldn’t be the same if Brian had been mentally better, but likewise none of his music would have been the same if he’d been able to hear in both ears, and we don’t call Pet Sounds “a product of physical disability”.

Just having a mental illness doesn’t make one magically able to make music of the quality of Love You — I worked for several years on a psychiatric ward, and several of the people on that ward fancied themselves musicians, so I can tell you that from personal experience. Conversely, having a mental illness doesn’t suddenly remove all talent, intelligence and humour from someone who has those things when they’re well.

The narrative that mental illness is in some way romantic or confers mystical talent upon those who have it is definitely a pernicious one that needs to be fought. But just as pernicious is the opposite myth — that because someone has bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or whatever, they instantly become unable to do anything or make any rational decision. People with mental illnesses can be capable of creating great art — even great art that stems from their illness. Or should we dismiss Van Gogh and William Blake, too?

No, Love You wouldn’t be the same album if Brian Wilson hadn’t been suffering from a mental illness at the time — but that’s a good thing. Not a good thing that he was ill, but a good thing that while ill he was able to create great art. Personally, I think we need more art from people with mental illnesses — they’re marginalised, and their opinions and thoughts more or less ignored or mocked, in this society.

But this isn’t something that has to be treated as outsider music and listened to as one would listen to Wesley Willis. This is an album that had a rave review on its release from Patti Smith, that Peter Buck considers one of the greatest ever and that, most importantly, Brian Wilson himself often says is his favourite by the band. This is a strange, but beautiful, work by one of the greatest songwriters ever.

To those who have ears, let them hear.


Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston (uncredited)

Let Us Go On This Way
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist:
Carl Wilson and Mike Love

And the album starts as it means to go on — with a riff almost identical to that of Gimme Some Lovin’ played on a cheap-sounding electric organ and a Moog bass, while a single snare drum thwacks on the off-beat and Carl Wilson grunts.

This is pop-R&B for the post-punk age, the Spencer Davis Group in a world where the drum-kit and the electric guitar had never been invented. Over a simple, grunting riff played on a farting Moog, stabbing chords on an organ, Jay Miglori’s baritone sax and a solitary snare drum, Carl Wilson soul-shouts “To get you babe I went through the wringer/Ain’t gonna let you slip through my fingers”. The verse is simplicity itself, but then for the chorus line we get something totally different — all the instruments drop out, replaced by a piano, and the two-chord riffs we’ve had so far are replaced by seven chords in three bars, as the ecstatic harmonies come in — “God, please let us go on this way”.

To those who’ve been following the band’s career, this can’t help but be a reminder of the last time the Beach Boys invoked the deity in this way — the similarly gospel-infused He Come Down — but while the harmonies here work in the same way, here they’re shattered voices. The Wilson brothers at this point had destroyed their voices with a combination of cocaine, alcohol and smoking, though Carl’s voice remained comparatively unravaged, and so here rather than the ethereal beauty of even a few years ago, we have what sounds like ancient, weary old men, their voices cracked and shattered, even though when this was recorded all the band were under thirty-five.

But the significant word here, as Patti Smith correctly noted in her review for Hit Parader [FOOTNOTE Which can currently be read at], isn’t “God” but “please”, which she called “the catchword of Love You” but which could equally be called the catchword of Brian Wilson’s entire career. This is a pleading album, and I can’t really put it better than Smith did:

they are pleading w/ the same urgency as the boy in the back seat to the girl in 1963. please it won’t hurt. please. come to me/give to me/tell me/listen to me…[orthography as in the original]

Then after another verse we get the middle eight, and Mike Love’s sole songwriting contribution to the album (apparently he wrote only these lyrics, not those for the rest of the track). And suddenly we’re back in the world of Holland, with Love’s obsessions with telepathy and levitation coming to the fore again. “Seems we have extra sensory perception…now we can fly”. It even sounds different from the rest of the track — the single snare drum thwack has been replaced with a single thump on a tom.

The track builds cleverly, from the single Moog bass under Carl’s vocal at the beginning, to a mass of Moog, organ, sax and chanting Beach Men by the end, but throughout it there is a propulsive energy that had been missing from everything the band had recorded, no matter how good, since about 1971.

A staggeringly good opener.

Roller Skating Child
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

“And we’ll make sweet lovin’ when the sun goes down/We’ll even do more when her mama’s not around/Well, oh my, oh gosh, oh gee/She really sets chills inside of me”.

This is one of the comparatively weaker tracks on the album, sounding in fact like a rewrite of the previous track (the verse riff is essentially the same but a tone up), but less inspired, with handclaps and some rudimentary blues guitar attempting to liven it up. Even so, lyrics like the chorus lines quoted above, or “we do it holding hands, it’s so cold I go brrr”, are quintessentially Brian Wilson.

This is probably the most “Beach Boys” sounding track on the album, with Mike Love taking the lead in his nasal tenor, but still the greatest moment is the end, when out of nowhere comes a quick G-flat – A-flat – B-flat rise that’s reminiscent of the chorus to Sail On Sailor, and Brian sings, in his ravaged “low and manly” voice but with the innocence and enthusiasm of a five-year-old, “Roller…skating…CHI-ILD!”

It’s the real entry of the voice that will define much of the album.

Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

The Beach Boys Love You, like many records where Brian Wilson has had control, is structured in a way that seems strange to modern ears but made sense at the time. When the Beach Boys were first starting out, in the very early 60s, the convention was that albums would have two sides that were different in style. Side one would be “for the kids” and be R&B or rock style tunes, while side two would be “good music” “for the grown-ups” — orchestrated, sweetened ballads. This was the convention to the point where I actually own a Ray Charles album from the early 1960s whose liner notes feel the need to explain that they’d chosen to mix the two styles up rather than do it the conventional way.

And this is how Brian Wilson structured many (though not all) of his albums. It’s most obvious on The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, but it’s also there on The Beach Boys Today and (to a slightly lesser extent) Summer Days…And Summer Nights! — a side of mostly uptempo rockers, and a side of more sophisticated, more complex, ballads.

So here we get the third uptempo track in a row, and the most fully fleshed-out. This has a full wall-of-sound style production, with massed backing vocals, multiple saxophones, and even drum fills (unusual for this album). Over a four-chord doo-wop progression, a badly double-tracked Dennis Wilson, his voice so damaged he can barely enunciates, shouts lyrics like “Come on, listen to Da Doo Ron Ron now, listen to Be My Baby, I know you’re gonna love Phil Spector” and “Will you, will you will you will you just kiss me/When you leave me won’t you just miss me?” (See what Smith meant about “please”?)

This is a man in his thirties singing a song about the concerns of a boy in his teens, in the voice of a man in his eighties, and if you can listen to it without a huge grin on your face I pity you.

Johnny Carson
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Carl Wilson

Johnny Carson starts off with a verse that sounds almost like the kind of louche Weimar cabaret song that Scott Walker or someone of that ilk might cover, low piano chords and Moog in a minor key, with no other instrumentation, while the singer sings in a low baritone, being almost mocked by the answering chorus.

Except that that singer is Mike Love, and the words he’s singing are “He sits behind his microphone/(Joh-nny Car-son!)/He speaks in such a manly tone/(Joh-nny! Car-son!)”

This is the make-or-break song for this album — at this point either you just decide to go with it and accept that, yes, this is going to be a song about how great Johnny Carson is, and how “every night at eleven-thirty he’s so funny”, where the instrumental break consists of four bars of just a stabbed Cm chord, played on organ and piano, on the on-beat, followed by four more bars alternating between B-flat and E-flat, and where there is a single cymbal crash that is almost the only use of cymbal in the entire album, or you turn the album off and give up on it.

As the song ends with another doo-wop progression, over which the band chants “Who’s the man that we admire?/Johnny Carson is a real live wire”, only those who are willing to listen with an open mind are left, as the album starts to get really good.

Good Time
Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

This song is often considered to not fit on the rest of the album — it was originally recorded during the Sunflower sessions in 1970, apart from one “Hey!” at the end that Brian added in 1977, and features a much fuller arrangement than anything else on the album, including strings and horns, as well as having Brian’s very different 1970 voice in the lead.

It’s also the only song that had had any kind of release before this, having been released as a track by American Spring (a vocal group consisting of Brian Wilson’s wife Marilyn and sister-in-law Diane) with the same backing track but slightly revised lyrics (including a vocal part on the instrumental break — “Hey baby, turn up the radio/The DJ just said he’s playing our favourite song/talk to me”). That version is actually in many ways the better mix, having some instrumental parts missing from the Love You mix, and sounding overall much clearer.

Despite all the differences — the orchestration, the simpler structure, Brian’s voice — this does still fit on the album, simply because of the eccentric sense of joy in the track. There’s no other album in the world where a line like “My girlfriend Penny, she’s kinda skinny/And so she keeps her falsies on” would fit.

Honkin’ Down The Highway
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist:
Al Jardine

The only single from the album was this utterly joyous country-rocker. One of the fuller productions on the album, this harks back to the band’s early days of singing about cars and girls, but with a mixture of sophistication and naivety that is utterly astonishing.

On the one hand, you’ve got Brian and Dennis bellowing “honk honk, honking down the highway”, and the fact that Al is singing about “honking down the gosh-darn highway”, but on the other you’ve got astonishing musical moments like the bridge, where a song that has been in E major throughout the verse diverts into a minor key, but only so the song can build up from Bm7 through Em7 and F#m7 before triumphantly going to G major and then to B major, the fifth of the original key — taking us from a minor version of the chord to a major one through a continuous lift that is just about the most joyous thing ever committed to record, especially when combined with Al singing over the top “I guess I got a way…WITH…GIRLS!” in his magnificent, rich voice.

And this is the thing that makes Brian Wilson so special as a songwriter — the combination of an utterly unmediated emotional expression with a peerless musical intelligence and craft. This is the music that an enthusiastic child would make, making up a song about the first thing that came into her head — if that child was at one and the same time someone with decades of songwriting craft.

No-one else can do this.

Al Jardine re-recorded this song on his 2010 album A Postcard From California, with Brian Wilson adding backing vocals, but this is still the superior version.

Ding Dang
Brian Wilson and Roger McGuinn
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

A very silly song indeed, running slightly less than a minute long, all on one chord, with the band singing “Ding, dang, dang, Whoo!, ding and a ding dong” while Mike sings “I love a girl/I love her so madly/I treat her so fine/But she treats me so badly” over and over. This took two people to write.

This is Brian Wilson’s favourite song from the album.

Solar System
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

Side two opens with a wonderful waltz-time ballad, layers of synths under Brian’s ‘low and manly’ voice as he sings a song about the planets that seems aimed at children.

Harmonically, this is the most interesting thing so far — the verse/chorus seems to start in G or D, but soon moves to A, before going to F for the chorus, but then ending on a D chord. It’s one of the most harmonically mobile things Brian had done in years, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The middle eight, meanwhile, seems to stick mostly to the key of E minor, but with a Cm7 chord that doesn’t neatly fit into any of the other keys.

Lyrically, the song is a look at all the planets in the solar system (except Uranus) and the moon, from a childish point of view — “If Mars had life on it/I might find my wife on it”, along with mentions of various other celestial bodies (“Then there’s the Milky Way/That’s where the angels play”).

It’s absolutely lovely, and for all the criticism Brian’s gruff 1977 voice gets, I have to say that I find the vocals on this track fit perfectly — he was still a great singer, even if he didn’t have a ‘beautiful’ voice. The harmonies on the chorus, with Brian multi-tracked, straining for the high notes he would once have hit easily, are lovely.

The Night Was So Young
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

By common agreement, this is by far the best song on the album, and for once the consensus isn’t wrong. This is the most fully-produced track on the album — and it sounds like a lot of that production is the work of Carl Wilson, as there are probably more guitars on this one track than on the entire rest of the album, with at least three clearly audible parts (a barely-there rhythm part, a vaguely “Hawaiian” sounding two-note repeated phrase mixed high, and a double-tracked lead part played on the bass strings and mixed low). It also has the most conventional drum part, to the point of actually having a little hi-hat work (one of the little-remarked quirks of Brian Wilson’s production is that he rarely uses cymbals of any kind on his recordings, preferring to use hand percussion to play those parts).

Carl Wilson turns in the best vocal performance of the album, a quite extraordinary effort. Listening to “Why she has to hide/She’s passing it by, she won’t even try/To make this love go where it should” you could believe this was Brian’s old trick of passing vocal lines between different vocalists, but they’re all Carl. In fact, it sounds like the only vocals on this track at all are massed Brians in the harmony stack and Carl on lead.

The song itself is a lovely, simple one, with a vaguely Latin or Hawaiian feel thanks to all the major 7ths and 6ths, and with simplistic but effective lyrics that perfectly express the emotion of being awake at night thinking about a love you can’t have. Absolutely beautiful.

This is the only Love You song that Brian Wilson has included in his solo sets when performing live, playing it in 2002.

I’ll Bet He’s Nice
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

Another absolutely stunning song. The simplest way to describe how good this is is to say there’s a bootleg tape, quite widely available, of Brian demoing several Love You era songs for his bandmates. Their reactions to songs like Mona are…not hugely enthused. But when he plays this one, there are astonished noises and “woo-hoos” in the middle eight, Mike Love starts singing along with the choruses, and Love says at the end “Man, that knocked me out, that was a motherfucker.”

[Note to self — check that this line was actually in that place before releasing the book version of this, as the tape has been edited quite a bit].

A lovely song built on layers of synths, with the only other instrument audible being a tambourine low in the mix in the left channel, this is an absolutely heartbreaking little song — “I’ll bet he’s twice/As nice as me and it makes me cry/Please don’t tell me if it’s true/Because I’m still in love with you”.

It would be an absolutely perfectly constructed song, in fact, were it not for the middle eight lyrics, which are sung from the point of view of a lover afraid his love will leave, rather than one who has already been left.

This track also features a prominent vocal cameo from former and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who sings the multitracked “Well it’s you…” harmonies in the left channel on the fade.

Let’s Put Our Hearts Together
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Marilyn Wilson

A simple duet, again built on layer upon layer of synth sounds, this is one of the less complex songs on the second side, rarely venturing far from its home key and staying for much of the song on two chords.

There’s an appealing sweetness to this, and it would take a heart of stone not to be affected at least a little by Brian earnestly singing lines like “maybe I’ll come up with some idea and you’d think that I was clever”, but Marilyn Wilson was never a particularly good singer, and giving her lines where she has to sing a melisma that stretches the single word “good” into six notes over four beats is, frankly, cruel.

I Wanna Pick You Up
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson and Brian Wilson

A rather sweet, charming song sung to one of Brian’s children, who were at this point old enough to be going to school — “I love to pick you up, ’cause you’re still a baby to me”, this is an innocent little song about loving and caring for one’s children. There’s a subsection of Beach Boys fandom which likes to infer a sexual double-meaning to this song (mostly because of the line “pat her on her butt/she’s going to sleep, be quiet”), but while some of the other songs Brian was writing around this time have some disturbing aspects to it, this is as innocent a song as it gets.

The song is not one of the best on the album (Darian Sahanaja, later musical director of Brian Wilson’s backing band, released a solo version of the song with Pet Sounds style orchestration in the mid-90s, and it doesn’t really hold up under the weight), but like the whole album it manages to communicate an honest emotion, in a direct way, and it’s an emotion that is very rarely dealt with in rock or pop music. And the harmonies at the end are exquisite, with Love’s held bass note about as deep as he’s ever sung, while Dennis sings “little baby go to sleep”.

A minor piece, but a nice one.

Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Brian Wilson

One of the very best things on the album, here lyric and music work perfectly together, as the tiny drifts in chord in the verses, from Gmaj7 to G7 to Cmaj7 to Am7 to D7, always keeping several notes in place from one chord to the next, perfectly capture the feeling of floating along above the clouds, thinking about arriving home.

It’s a hard song to analyse, because it’s just so direct and affecting. Love turns in a remarkably good vocal for him in this range (it’s right at the top of his tenor range, where he’s normally most nasal). But it’s a great one. After the two verses, we get a new section — “Airplane, airplane”, bringing in a hint of Gm to go with the G major key established in the rest of the song, but only so that on the “carry me back to her side” line we can have the rising Sail On Sailor Eflat-F-G sequence. This repeats and then we get Brian singing, almost a descending scale, “down down, on the ground, can’t wait to see her face”, again evoking perfectly in sound the feeling of a slow descent.

And then there’s the tag, where over a two-chord R&B vamp, Brian and Carl engage in a joyous call and response — “I can’t wait (can’t wait) to see (her face)”. This makes up nearly a quarter of the song, and frankly I’d have been just as happy if it had gone on for another five minutes, just hearing the two brothers playing off each other vocally, Carl growling and Brian singing “I can’t wa-hay-hait”. There’s nothing musically clever going on here, just two people singing with such infectious joy that the listener can’t help but smile.

Love Is A Woman
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine

And then finally we get to the song that most people use to dismiss the album. This is, frankly, a bit of a failure — a doo-wop song with lines like “Love is a woman/so tell her she smells good tonight” and “One two three/She’s fallen in love with me/Four five six/She fell for all my tricks”, this has the same childish eccentricity as most of the rest of the album, but doesn’t have the imagination to go along with it, and to make matters worse there’s just enough sweetening added to the mix (multiple saxophones and what sounds like a flute) to make it sound cluttered, while still sounding amateurish.

You can’t expect every song to be a classic, and this is the only one on the album that is less than wonderful, but it seems strange that it was sequenced as the last song on the album. The band — or at least Brian — seemed to like it though, and it was kept in their live set for a while, while Brian chose to perform it on a rare solo TV appearance around this time.

I am entirely prepared to accept that I’m missing something with this song, and that in two or three years something will click, and I’ll realise it’s a great work of genius, because the rest of this album is so unbelievably good that I’m willing to see any failure in it as a failure in me. But for now, I have to say that this is an imperfect ending to an otherwise perfect album.

The Beach Boys On CD: Carl And The Passions (So Tough)

Carl & The Passions feels very much like the work of a totally different band from the one that recorded Surf’s Up, and that’s because to a great extent it is.

After Dennis Wilson damaged his hand and could no longer play drums, he moved to the front of the stage and became a co-frontman with Mike Love. This left an opening on the drum stool, and Carl Wilson suggested that two members of The Flame, a South African band who he had been producing for Brother Records, should join the touring band.

The addition of Blondie Chaplin (on guitar and bass) and Ricky Fataar (on drums) changed the sound of the band immensely, as one would expect from adding two black South African musicians to a band that was the quintessential whitebread American band. The band then changed even more with the departure of Bruce Johnston, part-way through recording this album. The circumstances around Johnston’s departure remain unclear, although it seems to have been due to a clash between Johnston and Jack Rieley. Rieley saw the band as two factions — the Wilson brothers, who were interested in making interesting, creative music, and Love, Johnston and Jardine, who weren’t.

Whether this was true or not, the addition of two proteges of Carl Wilson, and the departure of Johnston, definitely brought the band more in line with Rieley’s vision. The resulting album is much more R&B flavoured than anything the band had done since Wild Honey, but shows little group unity (the fact that the back cover photo has Brian Wilson crudely pasted into a shot of the rest of the group says much about the state of internal relations in the band at the time). Essentially, this is an album of four singles — two rockers by Brian, two Love/Jardine songs about meditation, two Flame tracks, and two Dennis Wilson ballads — that could be the work of four different bands. Carl Wilson is, largely, the common denominator, working with everyone to get their tracks into shape, and it’s because of his role as de facto leader at this point that the album is named Carl & The Passions, after a name under which an early high-school version of the band had performed.

Carl Wilson is, in fact, the only Beach Boy to appear on every track on the album, but to a large extent there’s a coherent band playing the backing tracks, with a core band of Carl Wilson, Chaplin, Fataar and Billy Hinsche (Carl Wilson’s brother-in-law, and keyboard and guitar player in the touring band). The production credit for the album reads “produced by the Beach Boys (especially Carl Wilson)”, although the two Dennis Wilson tracks were actually produced by Dennis Wilson and Daryll Dragon, for an earlier, abandoned project.

While the album never hits the heights of Surf’s Up or Til I Die, it’s actually the band’s most consistently good album since Friends, which makes it all the more annoying that the record was hamstrung by a bizarre marketing decision.

Part of the band’s contract with Warners had specified that they would complete the Smile album and release it, and it was originally intended that it be as a double-album set with this album. However, without Brian Wilson’s collaboration, Carl Wilson was unable to get the Smile tapes into a releasable state. Instead, it was decided to release Carl & The Passions as a two-disc set along with a reissued Pet Sounds, the rights to which had reverted to the band.

This meant that the music on the album had to stand direct comparison with what was generally regarded as their best ever work, as well as annoying long-time fans who had to buy a second copy of an album they already owned and putting off new listeners who didn’t want to listen to six-year-old music. The end result was that Carl & The Passions became the least critically successful work of their post-1967 career to date, despite its generally strong quality.


Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar, Bruce Johnston (uncredited)

You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone

Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

A rewrite by Rieley of an unreleased Brian Wilson song called Beatrice From Baltimore, this isn’t much of a song in itself, consisting mostly of just I, IV and V chords, with a brief F-G7-A7 rise on the chorus line being the only break from the home key of G. The melody is trite, and the lyrics don’t say very much.

The performance and arrangement are another matter, though. Carl Wilson’s lead vocal here is just extraordinary, consisting of a near-perfect double-tracked ‘clean’ lead (one track in the centre channel and one panned slightly to the right), along with, in the left channel (and sometimes itself doubled), an incredibly gruff, barked version of the same part that must have been hell for his vocal cords, and which manages to keep the same exact pitch and phrasing throughout while singing in a completely different voice. (There is also, sometimes, right on the edge of hearing, another ‘gruff’ voice, which might be bleed-through from an early take or dummy vocal, and which I couldn’t swear isn’t Brian Wilson singing). He then uses yet another, sweeter, voice for the “she don’t know” sections of the song. It’s an astonishing, virtuosic, vocal performance, and one that is utterly unlike anything he’d ever done before. The Beach Boys have here turned from a pop band into a rock band, and amazingly they do it rather well.

The instrumental arrangement benefits enormously from the musical abilities of Chaplin and Fataar. The Flame had been a band whose music was halfway between soul (they started as a soul covers band) and Beatles pastiche (it’s no coincidence that Fataar was later chosen by Neil Innes as the drummer for his Beatles parody group The Rutles), and here we have the band playing with a groove they’ve never really played with before — the difference between this and the lumbering attempt at rock that is Student Demonstration Time is revelatory — while there is some gorgeous George Harrison-style slide guitar added on top of the more normal rock guitar.

Then on top of this we have some lightning-fast double-time picked banjo, played by legendary bluegrass musician Doug Dillard, in another example of how the band were starting to integrate folk and country instruments into their musical blend.

The whole thing works entirely because of the level of attention paid to details of arrangement and performance, for what is at root a rather lacklustre song. On the other hand, as a statement of intent, this works — it sounds absolutely nothing like “the Beach Boys” as they were in the mind of the public, and so it was chosen as the lead-off single for the album, though unsurprisingly it flopped.

Here She Comes

Songwriter: Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar

Lead vocalist: Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin

Unsurprisingly, the first Chaplin/Fataar song on a Beach Boys album sounds utterly unlike the Beach Boys, and rather a lot like The Flame. A simple, rather plodding country-rock track heavily influenced by The Band and George Harrison (it sounds like Old Brown Shoe was a distant influence), this is the kind of thing a thousand bands were doing at the time, with lyrics like “crazy woman can you see/that I’m giving to you can you dig me?”

That’s not to say it’s unpleasant, however — it’s a very, very competent example of its genre, and very enjoyable to listen to. It’s just unoriginal.

The most noticeable thing about this song is how well Chaplin and Fataar fit with the Beach Boys vocally. While Johnston’s voice never fit the band’s family blend, Chaplin especially has a voice that sounds spookily like Carl Wilson at times, and sometimes also has something of Jardine’s resonance. His singing style is more soul-influenced than theirs is, but he (and to a lesser extent Fataar), sounds like a Beach Boy, in a way that neither Johnston or David Marks ever really did.

He Come Down

Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love

Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

Another piano-based song based on I-IV and I-V changes, this is very much a musical cousin of You Need A Mess Of Help, but here the music is in a gospel style — a style which the band had never really explored before, but which they suit perfectly. Over a backing track of just piano, organ and handclaps, the band are allowed to shine with what is easily the most impressive vocal performance of the album, with each vocalist allowed to sing freewheeling gospel vocal lines over a unison chant of “dit dit, you know I believe it”, with a break for a mass choral “yes I believe it” which is just spellbinding.

The only flaw with the track is the lyrics, which seem to be trying to teach a syncretic Christian Hinduism, in which both Jesus and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi are avatars of Krishna, or something. However the lesson here is simply that one doesn’t turn to the Beach Boys for theology lessons. Musically, this is spectacular.


Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Jack Rieley and Tandyn Almer

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

And side one of the album finishes with the third and last Brian Wilson contribution to the album (as well as the only song on which Johnston appears). Another simple, riffy, R&B-flavoured rock song, this one had a history going back almost nine years at the time it was recorded, having started life in the early 60s as All Dressed Up For School (a track that remained unreleased until 1990) before then becoming the Sunflower-era outtake I Just Got My Pay. This final version had lyrics about a favourite hem-hem masseuse of Brian’s acquaintance, before Rieley and Tandyn Almer (the writer of, among other songs, Along Comes Mary for The Association) got hold of it and added some vaguely hippyish lyrics to it.

This side of the album has proved, if nothing else, that the Beach Boys really could work as a rock band in the early-70s mode. While this song does not admit of much analysis, it’s a wonderful record, and the song stayed in the band’s setlist for several years. It’s also a mainstay of Brian Wilson’s solo shows, and was played regularly during the band’s fiftieth anniversary reunion tour in 2012.

Hold On Dear Brother

Songwriter: Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar

Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin

The second song by the Flame members on the album is cut from the same cloth as the first, but is, if anything even more obviously influenced by The Band — it’s hard not to imagine Levon Helm singing lead on this even while it’s playing.

Harmonically, this is extremely simple, being almost entirely based around a doo-wopish vi-IV-I-V progression, with the only real musical spot of interest being in the chorus, where the song changes from its slow waltz time into alternating bars of fives and sixes.

This is certainly not a bad track in any way, although it does rather outstay its welcome at nearly five minutes, but it has little to do with the Beach Boys other than Carl Wilson’s backing vocal part, and it could have been made by any of a thousand bands at the time. Pleasant enough, but inessential and inconsequential. Some nice slide guitar by Red Rhodes isn’t enough to let the track stand up to repeated listens.

Make It Good

Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Daryl Dragon

Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

This, on the other hand, is half the length of the previous song but an absolute revelation. For some time, Dennis Wilson had been working with Daryl Dragon, the band’s touring keyboardist (who would later find fame as The Captain in The Captain And Tennille), but other than one Tim Hardin-influenced single (released under the name Dennis Wilson And Rumbo) nothing from their collaborations had been released, thanks to the disagreements over the tracklisting for Surf’s Up. This track and Cuddle Up were both originally intended for a Dennis Wilson solo album, but later completed for this project.

Here, for the first time, Dennis Wilson has found his own voice. His previous work, while often approaching greatness, had always been in his brother’s style — Forever, for example, could as easily have been Brian’s work as Dennis’.

This, on the other hand, sounds like nothing the band had ever done before. Dennis’ song (and it is mostly Dennis’ song, Dragon mostly assisting with the arrangement) owes as much to Wagner as to Brian Wilson, and has simple, impressionistic lyrics, with only a few words per line, over a huge, sweeping, string arrangement, with the vocals croaked in a broken voice that would be Dennis’ trademark from here on in.

It should, frankly, be awful — on paper it sounds like the worst kind of overblown 70s pretentious nonsense. But it works, and it works absolutely. This is Dennis Wilson finally showing the same kind of musical honesty as his brother, and just like Brian Wilson he manages to convince absolutely. The difference in styles is the difference in the two men’s personalities — while Brian’s music, like the man himself, is quiet, diffident, and slightly off-kilter, Dennis’ music has his own characteristics — extreme, passionate, completely over-the-top. By all accounts Dennis Wilson was a man with little control of his emotions, who had higher highs and lower lows than any of his bandmates, and those large emotions need a large musical canvas to paint on.

Simply gorgeous.

All This Is That

Songwriter: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love

This, meanwhile, is a rare attempt at genuine artistic growth from Love and Jardine (Carl Wilson apparently came up with the vocal arrangement, for which he got his portion of the songwriting credit — he also produced the backing track, which features only him, Chaplin and Fataar).

Harmonically extremely simple (a chorus based on Imaj7-IVmaj7, with a verse going Imaj7-ii7-V7, about as simple as it can get), the beauty of this song is entirely in the sound and feel of the track, with some of the best vocals the band have ever done.

The song was originally written by Jardine, based on Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken , but Love and Jardine later combined this influence (in the chorus line “two ways have I/both traveled by/and that makes all the difference to me”) with inspiration from the Upanishads (the core religious texts of Hinduism) as interpreted by the Maharishi.

Love, in particular, clearly thought this was an important message for the band to convey, and turns in possibly the best vocal performance of his life on the verses (subtly shadowed by Jardine on the first verse), but the real highlight of the track — and of the album, comes with the tag, as Carl Wilson goes higher into his falsetto than he ever did before or since (it may be the only time he actually goes into true falsetto on a studio recording) singing “Jai guru dev” [FOOTNOTE Roughly, this translates to “victory to the great teacher”, where “the great teacher” can mean both a higher, more spiritual level of one’s own mind, and can also (for those who, like Love, follow the principles of Transcendental Meditation) mean the specific person who trained the Maharishi.], while Mike sings it in the bass register like a mantra. It may be the single finest vocal moment on any Beach Boys record.

This song clearly means a lot to Love, who regularly includes it in sets by his touring version of the Beach Boys, and it was also a highlight of the 2012 reunion tour.

Cuddle Up

Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Darryl Dragon

Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

And the final song is another one that was originally intended for Dennis’ solo album (where it was originally going to be titled Old Movie), and one of the best things he ever wrote. Based roughly around a melodic idea from Brahms’ Lullaby, this actually has a lot of harmonic similarities with Forever — both start their verses with the simple pastiche-baroque idea of having a descending scalar bassline, while keeping as many notes in the rest of the chord as possible the same — but unlike Forever this then goes into a B section (“Your love, your love…”) which reverses this. A pedal note of C is kept while a triad progresses upwards through a scale (C-Dm7/C-Cmaj7-F) but then the inevitable progression upwards takes us up and out of the home key altogether, as we keep progressing up by tones to the climax (“honey…I’m in love”), which drops us briefly back to the C chord for a second but which ends up with us in the new key of B-flat , a full tone down from where we started.

It’s a progression which absolutely works, and makes sense, but is completely counterintuitive, and has the song building to an almost orgasmic peak before collapsing down into a post-coital doze.

While it has more Beach Boys involvement than the previous Dennis track (both Carl and Blondie can be heard with very prominent backing vocal lines), this is still a Dennis Wilson solo track in all but name, and points the way forward to the style he would use for his solo work in the latter part of the decade. While the Wagnerian pomp of Dragon’s string arrangements is less appropriate here than on Make It Good, it still works, and this track manages to be the perfect close to an album which, despite all its inconsistencies, is one of the best the band ever produced.

The Beach Boys On CD: Surf’s Up

Shortly after the release of Sunflower, the Beach Boys hired former journalist and DJ Jack Rieley as their manager. Outside of the band members themselves, Rieley rapidly became the most important figure in the band’s story for the next few years.

Rieley was not just a manager in the traditional sense, he was also an advisor on how to relate to the counterculture that had been ignoring the band for the previous few years, as well as being a collaborator in their songwriting. Rieley encouraged the band to focus on more political subjects, particularly the environment and the treatment of Native Americans, at the expense of the love songs that had dominated Sunflower. He also tried to recapture the mystique of the unreleased Smile album, encouraging the band to finish Surf’s Up, the masterpiece that had been intended as the centre of that album, as well as writing his own lyrics in a style pastiching that of Van Dyke Parks (Rieley’s lyrics are far closer to the ‘acid alliteration’ tag Mike Love applies to Parks’ work than the Smile lyrics are).

The difference is apparent even from comparing the cover of this album to that of its precursor. While Sunflower‘s cover features the Beach Boys and their children sat around near some blossoming trees, the cover of Surf’s Up is a murky painting, in dark blues, based on the sculpture End Of The Trail, showing a Native American, head bowed in defeat.

Rieley’s tactics were successful — within a short time the band would be hugely popular with college audiences and magazines like Rolling Stone, paving the way for their commercial resurgence in the mid-70s — but they divided the band. Rieley claims that Love, Johnston and Jardine were more-or-less hostile to his aims for the band, while the Wilson brothers were more enthusiastic.

Inter-band disagreements made this album less than it could be — arguments about sequencing led to two tracks by Dennis Wilson being pulled from the album, in favour of lesser works by Love and Jardine (Dennis Wilson also contributed little to the album instrumentally, having injured his hand part-way through recording and being unable to play drums for a while). Nonetheless, this is still a significant artistic improvement over Sunflower, with the differences of opinion within the band leading to a real stylistic diversity, rather than the bland softness of much of the earlier album.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to listen to the album as it was intended to be heard at the time. Steve Desper, the band’s principal engineer in the late 60s and early 70s, mixed the album in a stereo-compatible quadrophonic system, which allowed it to be played on a normal turntable but ‘decoded’ by a special piece of equipment called a Stereo-4 decoder, sort of the audio equivalent of wearing 3D glasses. These decoders are, of course, long-obsolete, and while apparently there are technological ways of extracting the extra pseudo-channels from the stereo sound, it is unlikely that these will be used by even one percent of those who listen to the album.

Even so, and even given its patchy nature, this is still in the very top tier of Beach Boys albums.


Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston

Don’t Go Near The Water
Mike Love and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Al Jardine

The opening track is one of the most radical, brilliant things the Beach Boys ever did, production-wise.

No, seriously. I’m not joking.

This track is (rightly) regarded as a bit of a joke among Beach Boys fans, because the serious intent of the song — a plea to end pollution of the world’s water, a reasonable enough environmental message in itself — is completely undermined by the ludicrous nature of the lyrics, culminating in a strong contender for the most risible line in a released Beach Boys song. After Al Jardine sings “toothpaste and soap will make our water a bubble-bath/so let’s avoid an ecological aftermath”, any hope of taking the song at all seriously evaporates.

But under those lyrics, the arrangement is finally pulling together all the different pieces of ideas that the band had been using for some time, and making something totally different from anything anyone’s done before or since, but which would be the dominant mode of the band’s studio output for the next few years.

This track has almost no electric guitars or drums on it. Instead, there are multiple layers of Moog sounds, but coupled with acoustic, folk instrumentation — acoustic guitars, banjo and harmonica. This seems to have been a sound arrived at by compromising different people’s artistic visions — Brian and Carl Wilson, especially, seemed in love with the Moog for much of the 70s, while Jardine has always been a folkie at heart (and his 2010 solo album A Postcard From California sounds much like these early-70s albums would if you stripped the Moogs off). This combination of progression and futurism with tradition is in spirit (if not in execution — the song itself is still relatively poor) very much a return to the ideas the band had abandoned with Smile.

Long Promised Road
Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The first actual song Carl Wilson ever wrote (as opposed to contributing ideas to other people’s songs, or ‘writing’ generic surf instrumentals), this is based around a simple but effective chord sequence, playing with the chords of Cmaj7 and F. The slow, meditative verses cycle through Cmaj7, Em (the same chord without the root note) and F (with a brief stop at Dm at one point, the relative minor of the F chord), while the choruses are a straight uptempo C – F rock chorus, ending with an ecstatic climbing bass scale which turns the penultimate F into a Dm. Meanwhile the Moog-dominated middle eight plays with inversions of these chords, adding in an Am7 (whose notes overlap those of F and C) and a Dm6.

This harmonic unity helps hold together a song whose different sections otherwise have very different moods. The verses are straightforward piano-based ballad sections, featuring just piano, bass and some light percussion, while the choruses feature a full drum kit, answering backing vocals, Moog, and horns, and the solo (over the chorus changes) also features rock guitar. All this instrumentation is played by Carl Wilson on what is essentially a solo track.

It doesn’t entirely work, partly because Rieley’s lyrics are new age platitudes about fighting back against adversity, but couched in overly-complex words for such banal thoughts. But as a first effort at songwriting, this is superb.

Take A Load Off Your Feet
Al Jardine, Brian Wilson and Gary Winfrey
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine

This, on the other hand, is practically the definition of filler. Written primarily by Jardine, the lyrics to this are a self-consciously ‘quirky’ guide to good foot hygiene. While this sort of thing has sometimes worked for the band, normally there has been something interesting in the arrangement or chord sequences to latch on to. But this song is, for the most part, just cycling between two common chords, and the arrangement seems perfunctory — like a sketchy half-improvisation rather than something more thought out. Various production tricks don’t seem to hide the less-than-stellar nature of the composition.

Disney Girls (1957)
Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston

Johnston’s sole songwriting contribution to the album, and his last until 1980, may well be his masterpiece.

One of the most complex pieces of composition on the album, the verses to this song of wistful longing start out in G flat before descending a tone into E, returning to the home key on the words “I’m coming back” at the end of each verse — a wonderful unity of lyric and music.

Lyrically, the song seems completely out of step with the concerns of the rest of the album. While the other band members are singing about the environment, civil unrest and political upheaval, Johnston is singing the praises of Patti Page, and saying of a girl “she’s really swell, ‘cos she likes church, bingo chances and old-time dances”.

This is, of course, the point though — the song works precisely because it’s a song of nostalgia in a time of unrest. Taken out of the context of the rest of the album, it can sound slightly cloying, and even here it teeters precariously right on the point of descent into Hallmark card territory (an area where Johnston would spend much of the rest of his songwriting career, in some cases very lucratively — he would go on to write I Write The Songs during his hiatus from the band).

But here, surrounded by songs about death, depression and environmental destruction, one can more than sympathise with the desire to go back to what was (at least for a rich white man like Johnston) a happier, simpler time, even if it’s a desire most of us won’t share.

This song remains a staple of the Beach Boys’ live performances to this day, one of the only songs from this period that has remained regularly in their repertoire. Johnston’s songwriting contributions to the band were patchy, but when, as here, he hit on something good, he could deliver.

Student Demonstration Time
Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (new lyrics Mike Love)
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This, meanwhile, has no redeeming features whatsoever. Love’s attempt to be ‘relevant’ involves singing about student demonstrations to the tune of a 1950s hit, Riot In Cell Block Number Nine. This, however, has none of the earlier song’s subtlety or humour, and is not helped by the fact that Love, a right-winger, is trying desperately to sit on the fence here, attempting to appeal to the demonstrating students who made up the audience they were trying to court, but without ever actually saying anything to endorse their cause.

Musically, it’s an embarrassing attempt to ‘rock out’, featuring a clodhopping, lumbering drum beat, squealing distorted guitar, and a processed vocal from Love which is intended to sound like he’s singing through a bullhorn. The whole thing is a mess, best forgotten.

Feel Flows
Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson’s second song for the album has, in recent years, become one of the most popular songs that the band has done without Brian Wilson, thanks largely to its inclusion in the soundtrack of the film Almost Famous.

In feel, this is very similar to the verses of Long Promised Road, and is based around a simple four-chord sequence (opened up a little by a descending scalar bassline on the alliterative words-starting-with-w sections), with a brief key change on the chorus lines.

The recording is in large part a solo performance by Carl Wilson, who played the piano (doubled but recorded slightly out of phase), organ (which was added to the track both clean and put through a Moog), bass, guitar and Moog, as well as adding some of the percussion. The only other instrumental contributions are by percussionist Woody Thews and flautist Charles Lloyd (a semi-regular collaborator with the band in the 70s, and a well-known jazz musician in his own right).

Some have claimed that Carl Wilson provided all the backing vocals as well, but while all the original Beach Boys could sound very like each other, Johnston’s distinctive voice is in the mix, and I believe I can hear the other band members (Johnston and Jardine are credited on the AFM papers for the session, but the logs for this period are unreliable). Much of the track (but most notably Wilson’s lead vocal) is slathered in reversed echo.

Lyrically, this has variously been described as about either ejaculation or being on cocaine (the backing vocal line “white puff glistening shadowy flows”), but frankly the lyrics don’t make any kind of sense on a literal level, and they’re not meant to. They’re pretty mouth-noises, and they do a good job of being that.

A much more successful song than Long Promised Road, and a declaration that now there was a third Wilson brother capable of producing great work.

Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)
Al Jardine and Gary Winfrey
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

Jardine’s main solo song for the album was this acoustic folk song. Accompanied by only multiple acoustic guitars and a cymbal (until the very last line, when a keyboard also enters), a heavily-processed Jardine sings about being unable to find a good job, but still having hope for the future.

Jardine has never been the most talented or original of songwriters, but this works very well, in part because Jardine takes inspiration from the folk tradition. The melody of this is largely taken from The Wanderer, a hit for the Kingston Trio (a favourite band of Jardine’s). That song, in turn, is based on the American folk song 900 Miles, which in turn is based on the bluegrass song Reuben’s Train. Jardine makes up for his lack of songwriting inspiration by making himself a link in a longer chain, and the result is a nice, if slight, melody.

Lyrically, this is perhaps a little naive — it’s the work of a man who had never himself been out of work, or had to hold down the kind of menial job he sings about here, and it shows — but it’s well-intentioned enough. Unlike the cynicism of Student Demonstration Time, this song has its heart in the right place.

This song was briefly added to the band’s live set around this time, where rather astonishingly it was rearranged to have an almost proto-trip-hop feel, quite unlike anything else the band ever did, and decades ahead of its time.

A Day In The Life Of A Tree
Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Jack Rieley

The most controversial song of the band’s career up to this point, to this day people still ask whether this was intended as a joke, or whether it’s entirely serious. The answer, of course, is “yes”.

Over a pump-organ backing, with a pedal note held throughout the verses, Jack Rieley sings in a broken, off-key, quavering voice that sounds spookily like Brian Wilson’s voice would a few years later, singing from the point of view of a tree that has been damaged by pollution and wants nothing more than to die.

While this sounds a ridiculous premise for a song, the actual sound of it is heartbreaking, if nothing else because the central idea of the tree, once tall, brought down into depression, is a pretty good metaphor for the state of Brian Wilson’s own life at the time.

And then we get to the tag, where over cascading barbershop ‘bom bom’ vocals by the group, spread all over the stereo spectrum, Van Dyke Parks starts singing “trees like me weren’t meant to live, if all this world can give is pollution” while Al Jardine responds “Oh Lord I lay me down, my branches to the ground, there’s nothing left for me.”

The whole thing is heartbreaking, if not exactly easy on the ears, and is an absolutely beautiful piece of work. Unfortunately, the effect is slightly undercut by the sequencing of the album, which places all three Brian Wilson songs at the end. All three songs have a similar tempo, and all end with vocal rounds, and the two songs that immediately follow this are two of the best songs ever written, so this one, which is merely very good, suffers in comparison. It’s probably the worst piece of sequencing on any Beach Boys album.

‘Til I Die
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

And so, after eight songs which have rarely risen above the level of quite nice, we get to an absolute masterpiece, and what may be the finest song Brian Wilson has ever written on his own.

Wilson has said to Don Was that the original inspiration for this song came from sitting at the piano, playing a chord, then trying to make the most interesting-looking chords he could with his fingers, while keeping the top and bottom notes the same.

If this is the case, this didn’t survive until the final version of the song, but the chord sequence here is cramped and obsessive, using the smallest possible finger movements to make the biggest possible changes.

These changes, which swell up and sink down like waves but sink inexorably down from a key of A flat at the start of the verse to the key of G at the end, are reinforced by the vibraphone arpeggios going up and down over the organ, bass, and mechanical drums, as the band sing the haiku-like lyrics in block harmony:

I’m a cork on the ocean
Floating over the raging sea
How deep is the ocean?
How deep is the ocean?

And then Brian takes a solo line, and your heart breaks:

I’ve lost my way, hey hey hey

It’s the “hey hey hey” that does it. The sense of almost cheerful resignation to fate. Brian is being buffeted by forces that he can’t understand, that he has no hope of controlling, and which will eventually destroy him. And he’s fully aware of that, but that’s just how things are. So it goes.

And then, if your heart hasn’t been shattered enough, he does it again at the end of the next verse — “It kills my soul, hey hey hey!”

There is no possible combination of words that can express the feelings that this evokes, and it’s when dealing with songs like this that one realises most the powerlessness of music criticism. How to describe the empathy that these words, sung like this, evoke? Words of the deepest despair, tossed off lightly, almost childishly, in the voice of an ancient child. See? It just turns one to pretension. There is no language that can cope with this.

If Brian Wilson had only ever written this song he would still be regarded as one of the great songwriters of all time. The Beach Boys’ reputation could rest on this track alone.

But they also recorded the next track…

Surf’s Up
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine

Surf’s Up was to have been the centrepiece of the aborted Smile album (FOOTNOTE For more on Smile see volume 3, out later this year, where I will discuss the Smile Sessions box set and Brian Wilson’s 2004 completed solo version of the album), and had become legendary among pop music fans after the 1967 TV broadcast Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution showed Brian Wilson playing a solo version of the song. However, when the Smile project was scrapped, the song had not yet been completely recorded.

During the recording of this album, Van Dyke Parks, the song’s lyricist, who was at that point an executive for Warner Brothers (their record label), suggested they rerecord the song, as it was felt that they didn’t have enough new strong material. Brian Wilson vehemently opposed this, as he had bad memories of the Smile period, and it has been argued by many that the disagreement over this song’s inclusion was one of the principal reasons for Brian Wilson’s decreased participation over the next few years.

While the band attempted to record a totally new version of the song, they eventually ended up piecing together something that contained both 1967 and 1971 components. The backing track for the first half is the original Smile era backing track, but all the vocals are new, including a new lead vocal by Carl Wilson, and there are a couple of overdubs. Then the second half (for which a backing track was never recorded in 1971) is a piano/vocal demo by Brian Wilson dating from 1966, with some subtle synthesiser overdubs, and the tag is the ending of Brian’s demo, looped, with the band singing and some hand percussion added.

It shouldn’t work. But in fact it’s one of the most magnificent recordings of all time.

The song, of course, is the key thing. One of the first things written for Smile, it’s as good — and ambitious — as any song of the 60s.

The verses are, musically, almost the opposite of those for Til I Die. They start very simply, alternating between Gm7/D and Dm7/G, before rising from the Gm starting key through the key of F to land in D, a major fifth above the original key, before the verse ends and it starts again.

This is then varied for the second, piano, section, and as it starts with Fm7/A flat alternating with E flat/B flat, the opening chords to Caroline, No, we realise that the whole thing is an elaboration of, and expansion of, the musical ideas of that song.

But where Caroline, No was about the loss of a single woman’s youth, Surf’s Up is about the loss of far more — the loss of an entire civilisation. In Van Dyke Parks’ elliptical, pun-filled lyrics, we see a concert-goer falling asleep to the sound of the rattling jewellery of the rich people in the other seats and the classical music being played, and dreaming of the collapse of an entire civilisation — “columnated ruins domino”, buildings and structures falling down, climaxing with the piano going silent as Brian sings “a broken man too tough to cry”.

But then there is the realisation — “Surf’s up aboard a tidal wave”. The wave that destroys is also a renewer, and for new things to be built, old ones must be swept away. “I heard the word, wonderful thing, a children’s song”. And over the chorus of “Child is father of the man” the song fades as Al Jardine sings “A children’s song, have you listened as they played?/Their song is love, and the children know the way”.

In the context of Smile there’s much, much more to say about this, how it ties together the musical and lyrical themes of that album, but I shall leave that for the discussions of that album in volume three. For now I’ll just say that this track is the crowning moment of the Beach Boys’ artistic career. It’s all downhill from here, though to start with the slope is pretty gentle.

What I Did On My Holidays, By Andrew Aged 33 3/4

Or a review of the two Beach Boys gigs I was at in Italy.

Before I start… the Beach Boys (in whatever configuration) tailor their sets to their audiences and venues, and so the sets I saw (in open-air venues in continental Europe, where they always play comparatively conservative sets) aren’t a reflection either of the sets they’ve been doing in the US (where they’ve been doing a lot of deep catalogue songs) or the shows they’re expected to do in the UK or Japan.

That said…

This was one of those trips where every single thing goes right. I got out of the taxi at the hotel in Rome, to see someone standing in front of the door, who immediately said to me “You must be Andrew!” — it was someone I’ve known on various Beach Boys forums for years, but have never met in person, and while I knew he was going to the gigs, I didn’t realise we were staying in the same hotel. He’d recognised me from my self-description.

It was that kind of trip.

After getting to the venue many hours early — both Italian gigs were standing ones, so if I wanted to get a decent view I had to be there *early* — we first heard over the PA the playlist of classic sunshine pop that is used as the intro music for Brian Wilson’s solo shows (I made a playlist of this music on Spotify ages ago, for those who want to hear it), followed by a tedious loop advertising other shows at that stadium. Finally we got what appears to be the intro tape used for all the shows on this tour — Be My Baby by the Ronettes, In The Still Of The Night by The Five Satins, Graduation Day by The Four Freshmen, Changes by The Zombies, a surf instrumental I should know but don’t, and finally, right before the band came on, The Rain, The Park And Other Things by The Cowsills.

The backing band entered and started up Do It Again. This band consists of the core of Brian Wilson’s touring band — keyboardists Darian Sahanaja and Scott Bennett, falsetto vocalist Jeff Foskett, woodwind player and co-musical-director Paul Mertens, percussionist Nelson Bragg and multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory, along with Mike D’Amico, who normally plays drums or percussion for Wilson but here plays bass. These people are all fantastically talented musicians in their own right (especially Probyn — he’s in or has played with about a dozen different bands, most of which are among my very favourite bands of the last few decades). Guitarist Nick Walusko has had to leave the tour for health reasons.

Joining the musicians from Wilson’s band are two musicians from the band that’s been touring as “the Beach Boys” for the last eleven years, drummer John Cowsill (formerly of The Cowsills) and guitarist/vocalist/co-musical-director Scott Totten. These are both fantastic additions — they’re the two most talented members of the touring Beach Boys, and Totten shows at least as much devotion to getting the music *right* as Brian’s band do (so much so that after he was made bandleader many people started saying they actually preferred the Beach Boys touring band to Brian’s), while Cowsill is simply the best live drummer I’ve ever seen, bar none, and can play with the precision of a Hal Blaine while also giving the music an energy that Brian’s band have previously somewhat lacked.

Once they started playing, the five surviving 1960s Beach Boys came on stage.

While this tour is billed as a reunion, these five men have never all played together before this year — there was a little game of line-up musical chairs in the early 60s, and again in the late 90s, so while they’ve all played with all the other members in a band called the Beach Boys, these five Beach Boys only got on stage with each other for the first time at the Grammys earlier this year.

Despite that, there’s a real chemistry there that comes from having worked together, off and on, for fifty years. They all have their own role on-stage and fall into it absolutely naturally. Brian Wilson sits off to one side, plays keyboard, and takes a lot of lead vocals, but he’s many people’s main focus. He’s an absolutely riveting presence even though he’s not doing much — and he’s *very* engaged (for him — Brian has never been totally happy with stage performance. But having seen him solo eight times, he’s at least as happy and comfortable with this tour as he’s ever been on-stage.)

David Marks takes all the guitar solos, and is the most ‘rock-star’ish of the band, the closest to a conventional idea of cool. He’s also quite an intense, focussed guitarist, not interacting much with the rest of the band but concentrating on his playing.

Mike Love is the frontman and main lead singer, and the most controversial member of the band. On this tour he’s toned down the less classy aspects of his on-stage schtick, although he’s still using many of the same jokes, with the same timing, that he used in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2011 (just counting the shows I’ve seen him do before). On this first show he was sounding very nasal, and quite often flat — more so than at any previous show I’ve seen him do — but he sounded great on the second show.

Al Jardine is really the revelation of these shows. His voice is the only one which is even better than it was in the 60s, and he just sounds incredible. He’s also as serious about his vocals as Marks is about his guitar — seeing the intensity on his face as he sings even the more banal parts is wonderful.

And Bruce Johnston acts as cheerleader, doing very little musically in comparison with the other four (only taking one lead vocal, Wendy), but keeping the crowd clapping and enthused.

These five very different men somehow click as a unit, in a way that the band simply didn’t in the 80s and 90s. They interact like old friends, not like people who can’t stand the sight of each other — and the same goes for their interactions with the backing band. While there have been reports that some band members are less keen on these shows than on the Brian Wilson tours, they’re still giving it their all on stage, from Darian Sahanaja taking a great lead on Darlin’ to Probyn dancing away to Nelson’s percussion interplay with John Cowsill. You simply couldn’t imagine a better live band than the thirteen men on that stage.

Some people have asked, incidentally, to what extent the Beach Boys themselves contribute instrumentally. I was up front for both shows, and at opposite ends of the stage each time, and watching very closely, and so I can say this:

Brian — at various points in the Rome show he played odd little bass runs with his left hand which were audible in the mix, and during the intro and first verse of Kokomo he was the only one playing keyboards, and he was *very* audible then.

Dave — his guitar is always in the mix, but his vocal isn’t. The only times I could swear he was in the vocal mix were for Getcha Back, Surfer Girl and In My Room, while on Cal Dreaming he came in for the massed “Ooh” backing vocals four bars too early, and nothing came out of the sound system.

Al — his guitar is definitely audible at times. The part he’d normally play on banjo on California is on guitar for these shows, and very audible, and a couple of times when he stopped playing to adjust his mic or his settings I noticed the rhythm guitar part get thinner.

Bruce — Never noticed his keyboard in the mix, though it might have been, and when Mike did his “give me my note” bit on Be True To Your School, Bruce hit a key and nothing came out…

That said, the Rome show did have a couple of flaws — both Brian Wilson and Al Jardine fluffed their lead vocals (on You’re So Good To Me and Then I Kissed Her respectively) in such a way as to temporarily throw the band for a bar or two, and David Marks tried a bit of improvisation on some solos that didn’t *quite* come off. But those flaws were more than offset by the rest of the show.

In particular, Brian hasn’t been in better voice in decades than on this tour, mostly because he’s not having to carry the whole show by himself, and even on a song that would not normally be a highlight, like their cover version of California Dreamin’, he sings with an energy that he normally never matches. And while he got distracted a couple of times (I think he was hearing voices — I know the expression all too well from my days working on a psychiatric ward) he carried on playing even when he wasn’t giving it his full attention.

And while it was a more hit-oriented show than they’ve been doing in the US (and more so than they’re planning to do in the UK), and certainly leaned far more on the early fun-in-the-sun material than I’d choose, it was still a forty-five song set, and many, many of those songs are among the best songs ever written. I can’t complain at a show which includes Heroes & Villains, All This Is That, God Only Knows, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, In My Room, Good Timin’, California, Don’t Worry Baby, Please Let Me Wonder, Good Vibrations and Sail On Sailor, can I?

On the US leg of the tour they got the balance in the setlist exactly right, while here it was leaning more towards crowd-pleasers — but the thing about crowd-pleasers is that they do please the crowds, and usually for a reason.

After two and a quarter hours, the band left the stage, and the audience spontaneously started singing the falsetto part to the tag of Fun Fun Fun (the closing song) until the band came back on just to look at the audience and grin.

But that wasn’t the best day…

The next day, I got a train from Rome to Milan to go to the second Italian gig. And so did the Beach Boys.

I was just about to get on the train when I saw , walking past me, the familiar curmudgeonly JFK-meets-Cagney face of Bruce “Europeans are socialist assholes who hate success” Johnston, followed by the equally familiar and much more friendly face of Darian Sahanaja.

I didn’t bother the band on the train itself — I’m not the kind of fan who wants to interfere with their days — but I did speak briefly to several of the band members as they were walking past. I wished Probyn Gregory a happy birthday, exchanged a couple of words with a couple of the backing band members, and spoke briefly with Bruce, Al and Mike.

Bruce and Mike were about as you’d expect — Bruce being minimally polite, saying “thanks for coming” and walking past without stopping (which is absolutely fine, incidentally, not a complaint — he *was* polite, and he owes me nothing more than that, and on other occasions when I’ve spoken to him he’s been positively garrulous), while Mike stopped and spoke for a minute, and was very friendly, but got away pretty much straight away (again, as he’s entirely entitled to do — he had a train to catch).

Al Jardine, though, was absolutely lovely to talk to. I didn’t get to talk with him much (again, train to catch) but he stopped for longer than any of the others, and seemed genuinely delighted to talk with me a little about the tour and about his solo album.

Getting to the gig, we were allowed close enough while queuing to hear the full soundcheck (Kiss Me Baby, Darlin’, California Girls and a couple of others), before going in.

The setlist was similar to that of the day before, but they added two more songs (Ballad Of Ole Betsy and This Whole World — I don’t mind admitting I yelled with excitement when they played that one), bringing it to forty-seven songs long, and while the show the night before had been extremely good, this time the band were just *on fire* — it was one of those nights when everyone seemed to be playing at their peak. Mike’s voice was much less nasal, Dave Marks’ guitar improvisations worked rather than failing, and in general the whole thing was just that little bit better than the night before.

(The one exception is that Brian seemed slightly less engaged, though still better than at many of his solo shows.)

Al Jardine also recognised me from earlier, waved at me several times, and threw me his plectrum at the end (a custom plectrum with the Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Tour logo on one side and John Stamos written on the other — according to Probyn Gregory later, all the guitarists have their own custom plectra, and Stamos presumably had some done for the couple of shows he guested at in New York). I also held up a “Happy Birthday, Probyn” banner (made by my wife, Holly, for me to take), which got smiles from several of the band members. (That banner and the greeting at the train station also sparked a conversation between Probyn and myself on Facebook later, which was nice).

I know I’m sounding a bit like a fawning fanboy here, when I ‘should’ be complaining that they didn’t do Our Prayer or I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times like they did at some US shows, or making fun of Mike Love, or something. But I’m not going to. This was nowhere near the artistic achievement of the Van Dyke Parks show I saw last month — in fact it’s arguable whether it was the artistic equal of the Monkees show I saw last year (though that says more about how great the Monkees were than anything else). But it was a group of incredible entertainers and musicians, performing forty-five-song-plus sets including some of my very favourite songs along with some songs which, while not quite so good, clearly made tens of thousands of people at the gig very, very happy.

It’s not the mouth-open awe of Brian’s UK tour in 2002, or of the Smile tour, or the premiere of That Lucky Old Sun — those are experiences on a totally different plane. But these shows were *much* better than Brian’s 2008 UK tour, when he played essentially the same hits setlist (but a much shorter set, and with less enthusiasm), and the difference between these shows and the joyless trudge that passed for a Beach Boys show in the 80s or 90s is impossible to overstate.

This tour is a one-off thing, and there is already talk of Brian Wilson’s next solo tour, and the next tour by Love and Johnston as “the Beach Boys”, so if you get a chance to see it, do so. I do hope that, as is rumoured, they add more of the artier stuff for the Wembley show, but even if they don’t, it’ll still be a show to remember.